One line convinced Barry Jenkins to make ‘The Underground Railroad.’ Let him explain

Director Barry Jenkins standing in a cotton field surrounded by cast and crew on the set of "The Underground Railroad."
Barry Jenkins, center, while shooting “The Underground Railroad.”
(Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Prime Video)

Since before his film “Moonlight” won three Oscars in 2017, including best picture, writer-director Barry Jenkins has been working on an adaptation of the novel “The Underground Railroad.” Written by Colson Whitehead, the Pulitzer Prize-winner makes literal the idea of a train system that ferries runaway slaves to freedom, traveling state to state.

The visually lush, thematically ambitious and emotionally overwhelming 10-episode series, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, was a leap in scale for the filmmaker, whose work also includes the 2018 James Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk” and 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy.”


In the latest episode of the “The Envelope” podcast, Jenkins reflects on a single line from Whitehead’s novel that helped spur him toward undertaking the project.

“So this line, ‘Look out as you ride the rails and you’ll see the true face of America,’” says Jenkins. “Both literally and metaphorically, if you’re on a train underground, you look out the window, what do you see? Black. You just see black. You just see blackness. And there are so many stories revolving around the Black experience and as it relates to the foundation of this country that have not been told. And so have we seen the true face of America? I read that line and I was like, ‘Oh, s—, I have got to do this.’”

Jenkins also notes how how his experiences working briefly on the series “Dear White People” and “The Leftovers” were instructive and explains why he wanted to make “The Underground Railroad” as a multi-episode series and not a feature film.

A woman in a high collar white military-style jacket stares at the camera.
Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall in “The Underground Railroad.”
(Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios)

“The combination of those experiences I realized, ‘Oh, I think I know what this book wants to be is a television show.’ As a feature film, I have to know,” Jenkins said. “But as a television show, I can get into the second phase, the third phase, the fourth phase of the process and still be discovering things. And so it was a very elastic, freeing process. And making it as a television show rather than a feature was absolutely the right choice.”

Jenkins likes to work in a manner that allows him to respond in the moment on-set to whatever is happening that day. The scope of the budget and the schedule on a 10-part series might seem from the outside to create additional pressures, but Jenkins found ways to make the production move to his rhythms, such as taking time to collect shots for what became “The Gaze,” a 52-minute companion film featuring locations and actors from the show. Jenkins also worked with a number of returning collaborators, including producers Adele Romanski and Mark Ceryak, cinematographer James Laxton, costume designer Caroline Eselin, production designer Mark Friedberg, composer Nicholas Brittell and editor Joi McMillon. The cast includes Thuso Mbedu as central character Cora Randall and Joel Edgerton as a slave catcher pursuing her.

“I knew we were going to do something special because there were all these moments where you have this really big-ass machine and then you just press play,” Jenkins said. “Any time I wanted to veer left or right, people trusted that, OK, we will get there.

“I know television isn’t always this way, but it was beautiful,” Jenkins said. “We preserved the nimbleness of making something like ‘Moonlight,’ but at the scale of making something like ‘The Underground Railroad.’”

A couple sit side by side in 19th century formalwear.
Aaron Pierre and Thuso Mbedu in a scene from “The Underground Railroad.”
(Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios)

Its speaks to the tremendous empathy and generosity in Jenkins’ vision that he arranged for the slave quarter sets built for “The Underground Railroad” to remain standing after the end of shooting in hopes that future productions without the resources of creating a miniseries for Amazon would be able to use them too.

“Someone eventually is going to make a film set in this world that is not about slavery itself,” Jenkins said. “And us leaving these sets is going to get them 30% of the way budget-wise. And that was something that was in the back of my head because I had this huge machine behind me that we could afford to build all these things from scratch. The next person who wants to tell a story that is more niche, more singular, they won’t have that benefit. But the sets will be there. So maybe they will.”

‘The Underground Railroad’

Where: Amazon Prime

When: Any time

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Other recent conversations on “The Envelope” include Kate Winslet on “Mare of Easttown” and Elizabeth Olsen on “Wandavision,” while upcoming episodes include John Boyega on “Small Axe.”

Subscribe via Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes post every Wednesday.

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